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NEW YORK — Either the gods are conspiring against them or restaurateurs Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams just have a knack for opening restaurants in turbulent times. In 2001, six days before the scheduled debut of their TriBeCa restaurant, the Harrison, they and their staff witnessed the horrors of 9/11 unfold firsthand. And tonight, as the war wages on in Iraq, the duo opens the Mermaid Inn, a casual, no-reservations fish house located at 96 Second Avenue in the East Village, where the only thing missing is a crashing surf and the smell of the sea.
“Lucky in business, unlucky in love,” cracks Abrams as he leans on the bar on a recent morning. The staff is huddled in a corner undergoing training.
“We have an uncanny sense of timing,” adds Bradley, 35, the more smart-alecky of the two, with a cigarette in hand. “Opening a neighborhood restaurant before a national tragedy was part of the plan all along.”
However, for Bradley, the chef/owner who grew up in Narragansett, R.I., opening a New England-style clam shack like the ones he knew as a child really was part of the master plan. Finding the right place to do it proved to be more of a challenge — that is, until they discovered a space just three doors down from Frank, the beloved Italian joint that routinely has waiting lines topping an hour.
“The East Village has Italian, Indian, Mediterranean, Thai, sushi — you name it,” says Bradley, “but it has very few chef-driven, hospitality-driven seafood restaurants. There’s a void here.”
But don’t expect a replica of, say, the West Village’s Pearl Oyster Bar. The Mermaid Inn is less expensive, for one, and the menu has no lobster roll. Rather, its menu covers a range of North Atlantic seafood recipes, including lobster risotto balls, blue crab spinach dip, a Catalonian stew and spaghetti with green salad on top. The wine list features 34 bottles, and Bradley promises he’ll only charge $15 above the wholesale price of any bottle. “A steal!” he growls.
Better yet, dessert is free. “No selection at all,” he says. “There’s one a night. Maybe a cup of tapioca, a cupcake, or a slice of watermelon. You can accept or decline.” The check arrives in a sardine can.
Other New Englandy touches, masterminded by the duo, include a black-and-white clapboard ceiling and storefront, which came from an old farm in Pennsylvania, and the tchotches on the wall — a photograph of Jackie and Jack Kennedy from the Cape Cod years, maps of the Atlantic waterways and a Thirties poster Bradley wrested from a shop in a fishing community whose slogan, “American Fish: Eat Us Instead of Meat,” could be the restaurant’s motto.
Not that the fish house needs a selling point. After all, that’s what Bradley is for.
“We offer you incredible value. The dessert concept tied in with the wine — who does that?” he demands, working himself into a frenzy. “Tell me — who? Think of it as a revolution.”